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Managing a Completely Remote Workforce

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Earlier this year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer cracked down on employees working from home and her decision incited a firestorm. Many viewed the move as backwards, inflexible, and out of touch with workers of today. More recently, HP CEO Meg Whitman encouraged employees to come into the office as much as possible so it can have “all hands on deck” during its “critical turnaround period.” Her policy change garnered a similar response.

The model is certainly against what many companies in the technology sector are moving towards. And it’s not just technology companies, either. There are more employees working remotely than ever before, with 2.6 percent of the total workforce in the US working from home, according to a recent Global Workplace Analytics study.

Recruiting for technology-related jobs is competitive, and in order to retain the best people, employers have to be flexible, and often times that means allowing employees to work from home some, or all, of the time. Also, if companies are limiting their search to candidates within a commutable radius, they are missing out on a lot of good talent.

Founded in 2003, Arvixe is a web hosting provider with a completely remote workforce. Arvixe founder and CEO Arvand Sabetian started the hosting company while he was still in high school, and continued the company throughout college. When he graduated in 2008, the company continued to grow with employees across the US and around the world.

“Finally at around 30 or 40 employees, I was in Santa Rosa and still at my parents’ place, we had tables downstairs [as an office], and there was that decision moment: do I bring everyone to Santa Rosa and have an office space or just grow how we are?” Sabetian says.

“It was getting to a point where we were a very flat organization and there were no managers. Managing that many people remotely was pretty cumber- some and time consuming and frustrating, to say the least,” he says. “I decided with the number of people that we had and the individuals that committed themselves to Arvixe being wherever they were, it just didn’t make sense to bring people in, and realistically it would have ruined the lifestyles of a lot of the people that worked at Arvixe.”

For example, one of Arvixe’s employees, a QA manager, travels around in an RV with his wife and kids. He has been with the company for about four years.

Sabetian admits he didn’t enjoy having to go into an office, but that certainly not every CEO in hosting is the same.

“It goes back to the individual that’s running the company,” he says. “I know a lot of CEOs from hosting companies that are very hands on, and they just can’t have a remote workforce because being in that office, seeing everyone there, and being able to oversee them is something that empowers them to be able to manage the company in a more efficient manner.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that but I don’t necessarily need that to oversee where we’re going and what people are doing. I realize that I value the lifestyle for my employees and myself more than the hands-on stuff so I’ve grown accustomed to the changes in management,” Sabetian says.

When it comes to web hosting, many companies have offices, but don’t expect their employees to necessarily be in the office 100 percent of the time. The nature of web hosting and the cloud is that many of the work (from support to sales) can be done remotely. Meetings can be done over the phone and collaboration can be accomplished using various types of software. For example, Google Docs, join.me, and Kayako are just some of the tools that Arvixe uses in its day-to-day operations, Sabetian says.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily software that makes everything OK in that you can just run a company from anywhere, it’s kind of a mindset. If you are too attached – and I’m not perfect, obviously – you can’t be too much of a micromanager. You need to be able to trust people,” he says. “Some- times I don’t talk to my managers for 3 or 4 days, and if you’re not also seeing them on a daily basis, that can get to you.”

“That’s the number one thing: to trust people and to trust processes to tell you what is going right and what is going wrong. If you can do that then you can come up with the processes, you can say ‘I want to see this,’ instead of having to talk to everyone and oversee and watch people,” he says. “I can see this report, or I can have these meetings every so often remotely and know everything is going alright. Then you go out there and find a developer to build that report that needs to be built.”

Arvixe built a lot of these systems internally in the backend to keep track of employees.

“The company itself did build almost everything from the ground up aside from the support software we use, Kayako,” Sabetian says, including hosting offerings like Windows shared hosting and VPS.

“We didn’t bring an expert in; we had people who had experience building things so we just sat down and learned it and came up with what we thought was the best offering,” he says. “Everything was homegrown and built out as we grew and as the industry demanded it. Right now we’re about 100 people with 75,000-100,000 accounts.”

Recruiting is another challenge in building a remote workforce in that it is hard to tell in the interview process whether someone can handle working remotely. “Being a remote company, you can’t have someone that needs handholding all the time,” Sabetian says.

“It has been proven, and it’s obvious that having your office where you sleep and hang out with your family is challenging, and is not for everybody,” he says. “Right there you’re alienating a certain number of people in the work- force. But at the same time, to the credit of remote workplaces, you gain a larger number of people because you can hire from anywhere. You don’t have to go open an office wherever you want to hire people.”

Ultimately, whether a workplace is completely remote, or employees are expected to be in the office five days and 40 hours a week, the decision has to be made on a case-by-case basis. For Yahoo and HP, bringing everyone into the office makes the most sense at a time when they have to reinvent themselves. For Arvixe, its completely remote workforce has helped it scale and innovate in ways perhaps not possible by everyone being in an office.

Original post appeared in the Fall 2013 WHIR magazine, The Hiring Issue. 

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2 Comments

  1. DoktorThomas™

    Location, location, location. It always has impact. Both Marissa Mayer's current and previous employers took downturns since the change--at least in my experience. You'll have to judge for yourself ... HP is, for all intent and purpose, over; the questions is, "when will it fall over." Everything that made HP great can no longer be found in its current profferings. They are as useful and needed as "Edsel." Brick and mortar and the corresponding routines are strictly last millennium. As society continues government forced striation, the "free people" will be where they choose; the paying party members and the proletariat will be forced into the overseers' factories by crippling dependence to political royalty and by the cost of "social equity. " [Note: code words for totalitarianism, at least in that new State, Obamerica.] I admire Sabetian's path and determination. Finding those who can see, think and fulfill their commitments are worth keeping wherever they may be. Make it so. ©2014 All rights reserved.

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  2. C. White

    Great article. There are more cloud-based tools that are excellent for managing a remote workforce, including TeamViewer, Dropbox, Skype and many more. There's even a software designed to measure the productivity of remote workers called MySammy (www.mysammy.com). With all this available, there's really no reason why more of us can't work at home ourselves or manage a staff of remote workers effectively.

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